You Are Made of Stardust
Though the billions of people on Earth may come from different areas, we share a common heritage: we are all made of stardust! From the carbon in our DNA to the calcium in our bones, nearly all of the elements in our bodies were forged in the fiery hearts and death throes of stars.
The building blocks for humans, and even our planet, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for stars. If we could rewind the universe back almost to the very beginning, we would just see a sea of hydrogen, helium, and a tiny bit of lithium.
The first generation of stars formed from this material. There’s so much heat and pressure in a star’s core that they can fuse atoms together, forming new elements. Our DNA is made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus. All those elements (except hydrogen, which has existed since shortly after the big bang) are made by stars and released into the cosmos when the stars die.
Each star comes with a limited fuel supply. When a medium-mass star runs out of fuel, it will swell up and shrug off its outer layers. Only a small, hot core called a white dwarf is left behind. The star’s cast-off debris includes elements like carbon and nitrogen. It expands out into the cosmos, possibly destined to be recycled into later generations of stars and planets. New life may be born from the ashes of stars.
Massive stars are doomed to a more violent fate. For most of their lives, stars are balanced between the outward pressure created by nuclear fusion and the inward pull of gravity. When a massive star runs out of fuel and its nuclear processes die down, it completely throws the star out of balance. The result? An explosion!
Supernova explosions create such intense conditions that even more elements can form. The oxygen we breathe and essential minerals like magnesium and potassium are flung into space by these supernovas.
Supernovas can also occur another way in binary, or double-star, systems. When a white dwarf steals material from its companion, it can throw everything off balance too and lead to another kind of cataclysmic supernova. Our Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will study these stellar explosions to figure out what’s speeding up the universe’s expansion.
This kind of explosion creates calcium – the mineral we need most in our bodies – and trace minerals that we only need a little of, like zinc and manganese. It also produces iron, which is found in our blood and also makes up the bulk of our planet’s mass!
A supernova will either leave behind a black hole or a neutron star – the superdense core of an exploded star. When two neutron stars collide, it showers the cosmos in elements like silver, gold, iodine, uranium, and plutonium.
Some elements only come from stars indirectly. Cosmic rays are nuclei (the central parts of atoms) that have been boosted to high speed by the most energetic events in the universe. When they collide with atoms, the impact can break them apart, forming simpler elements. That’s how we get boron and beryllium – from breaking star-made atoms into smaller ones.
Half a dozen other elements are created by radioactive decay. Some elements are radioactive, which means their nuclei are unstable. They naturally break down to form simpler elements by emitting radiation and particles. That’s how we get elements like radium. The rest are made by humans in labs by slamming atoms of lighter elements together at super high speeds to form heavier ones. We can fuse together elements made by stars to create exotic, short-lived elements like seaborgium and einsteinium.
From some of the most cataclysmic events in the cosmos comes all of the beauty we see here on Earth. Life, and even our planet, wouldn’t have formed without them! But we still have lots of questions about these stellar factories.
In 2006, our Stardust spacecraft returned to Earth containing tiny particles of interstellar dust that originated in distant stars, light-years away – the first star dust to ever be collected from space and returned for study. You can help us identify and study the composition of these tiny, elusive particles through our [email protected]
Citizen Science project.
Our upcoming Roman Space Telescope will help us learn more about how elements were created and distributed throughout galaxies, all while exploring many other cosmic questions. Learn more about the exciting science this mission will investigate on Twitter and Facebook.
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Harvest Moon Trail : Famed in festival, story, and song the best known full moon is the Harvest Moon. For northern hemisphere dwellers that's a traditional name of the full moon nearest the September equinox. Seen from Saunderstown, Rhode Island, planet Earth, this Harvest Moon left a broad streak of warm hues as it rose through a twilight sky over the Newport Bridge. On September 20 its trail was captured in a single 22 minute exposure using a dense filter and a digital camera. Only two days later the September equinox marked a change of season and the beginning of autumn in the north. In fact, recognizing a season as the time between solstice and equinox, this Harvest Moon was the fourth full moon of the season, coming just before the astronomical end of northern summer. via NASA
𝑵𝒐𝒓𝒕𝒉 𝑨𝒎𝒆𝒓𝒊𝒄𝒂 𝑵𝒆𝒃𝒖𝒍𝒂
This view of the North America nebula combines both visible and infrared light observations, taken by the Digitized Sky Survey and NASA Spitzer Space Telescope. Clusters of young stars about one million years old can be found throughout the image.
Perseid Outburst at Westmeath Lookout : This year an outburst of Perseid meteors surprised skywatchers. The reliable meteor shower's peak was predicted for the night of August 12/13. But persistent visual observers in North America were deluged with a startling Perseid shower outburst a day later, with reports of multiple meteors per minute and sometimes per second in the early hours of August 14. The shower radiant is high in a dark night sky in this composite image. It painstakingly registers the trails of 282 Perseids captured during the stunning outburst activity between 0650 UT (02:50am EDT) and 0900 UT (05:00am EDT) on August 14 from Westmeath Lookout, Ontario. Of course the annual Perseid meteor shower is associated with planet Earth's passage through dusty debris from periodic comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. The 2021 outburst could have been caused by an unanticipated encounter with the Perseid Filament, a denser ribbon of dust inside the broader debris zone. via NASA
𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝑮𝒐𝒅𝒛𝒊𝒍𝒍𝒂 𝑵𝒆𝒃𝒖𝒍𝒂
This colorful image shows a nebula – a cloud of gas and dust in space – captured by NASA's now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope located is in the constellation Sagittarius, along the plane of the Milky Way, which was as part of Spitzer's GLIMPSE Survey (short for Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire). With a little imagination, you might be able to see the outlines of Godzilla. Stars in the upper right (where this cosmic Godzilla's eyes and snout would be) are an unknown distance from Earth but within our galaxy. Located about 7,800 light-years from Earth, the bright region in the lower left (Godzilla's right hand) is known as W33. When viewed in visible light, this region is almost entirely obscured by dust clouds. But infrared light (wavelengths longer than what our eyes can perceive) can penetrate the clouds, revealing hidden regions like this one. Blue, cyan, green, and red are used to represent different wavelengths of infrared light; yellow and white are combinations of those wavelengths. Blue and cyan represent wavelengths primarily emitted by stars; dust and organic molecules called hydrocarbons appear green; and warm dust that's been heated by stars or supernovae (exploding stars) appears red. When massive stars die and explode into supernovae, they reshape the regions around them, carving them into different shapes; they also push material together and initiate the birth of new stars that continue the cycle.